Memo to Senator Cantwell: Come home soon, and debate


Pacific Lutheran University is rightly proud to be hosting one of the two announced debates in this year’s Washington U.S. Senate race. There’s just one problem: As of now, only one combatant has confirmed she’ll show up.

Sen. Maria Cantwell is vague about when she can break free from her grueling schedule on Capitol Hill and return home where she belongs — where voters deserve to hear her make her case why they should send her back for a third decade.

The three-term incumbent has yet to accept the invitation to meet Republican opponent Susan Hutchison in a pair of public debates, including one at PLU, scheduled by the nonpartisan Washington State Debate Coalition. All other invitees, including candidates for the hotly contested 8th Congressional District, have RSVP’d.

Cantwell blames Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He canceled the August recess and plans to keep the Senate busy into late October.

In a statement last week, Cantwell’s campaign staff said she expects to debate her opponent before the Nov. 6 election but added “we are just not able to commit to any schedule or format,” saying “she will focus first on the job at hand.”

The statement noted the importance of looming votes on the federal budget and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

We acknowledge Cantwell’s concerns about McConnell’s cutthroat power play, which have put Senate Democrats – especially those facing tough midterm election battles – between a rock and a hard place.

But Cantwell is a safe Democrat expected to ride the blue wave to reelection by easy margins. She gains no advantage by sharing the stage with Hutchison, a former TV anchorwoman and state GOP chair, and she’s been a reluctant debater in previous reelection campaigns.

Constituents should press her to go through the formalities of being rehired for another six-year public contract. At a minimum, that includes facing her opponent twice and answering questions before a taxpayer audience.

Candidates for local office should be commended for agreeing to do that. Kudos, in particular, to Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and his challenger and former criminal deputy, Mary Robnett, for accepting invitations to a variety of forums, from the Graham Business Association on Sept. 19 to the Tacoma City Club on Oct. 3.

(Lindquist and Robnett will also meet together with the TNT Editorial Board. Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Cantwell will sit down with us.)

Running for U.S. Senate has a long tradition of joint appearances dating back to the storied Lincoln-Douglas debates 160 years ago. Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln convinced incumbent senator Stephen A. Douglas to meet in a series of seven rhetorical duels around the state. The underdog challenger lost the 1858 election, but raised his profile.

Today, debates don’t figure so prominently in campaign strategy, and many incumbents duck them. They’d rather control their message through TV ad buys and social-media image burnishing. Having topped $10 million in fundraising again this election cycle, Cantwell has a wealth of resources at her disposal.

Hutchison asked for the moon by challenging Cantwell to 10 debates. That’s absurd; the senator would be derelict in her duties to leave the Capitol so often.

But she can make a better showing than in 2012, when she agreed to just one debate against Republican Michael Baumgartner: at a TV studio in Seattle.

The Debate Coalition arrived at a fair compromise this year by scheduling a pair of free, public events: the Oct. 6 face-off at PLU in Parkland, followed by an Oct. 30 debate at Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Granted, such forums have limitations. Candidates use them to rehash favorite talking points, and informed voters don’t need them to make up their minds.

But the symbolism of taking a hiatus from the other Washington is paramount. Senators only run for reelection every six years; they have an obligation to face voters back home, as well as the duly elected Republican who emerged from a primary field of 29 candidates.

Even if it means extra red-eye flights, a few missed votes and a rebuke to the hostage-taking scheduling tactics of the Senate majority leader.